Steve Johnson Guilty or Innocent?

Now that the dust has settled and the raw emotion has been taken out of the situation my view is Steve Johnson should be playing in the preliminary final and not missing it.

At the stoppage Kennedy clearly looks at Johnson prior to the ball up and is aware of his presence to a point that it could be construed he is going to block his pathway to the contest. 

Johnson doesn’t look at Kennedy, is clearly focussed on the contest and driving through the middle of the stoppage at pace to win a clearance – something he is renowned for.

At a critical juncture the ball is tapped back over Kennedy’s head as he instinctively raises his hand to grab the ball and nearly connects with it. This significantly warrants Johnson to change direction sharply to follow its flight and engage the ball. It is at this point that Kennedy is standing prone in his line of pursuit to the ball.

In my mind there is no alternative for Johnson to avoid contact with Kennedy if he is legitimately attempting to win the ball as Kennedy is directly in his line of following the tapped ball away from the congested stoppage. 

Johnson could have tried to stop, spun away from Kennedy or not braced for contact. I don’t believe any of these courses of action would be naturally expected. The one corollary with this is the fact that players in congested situations no longer expect contact when they are not in possession or about to take possession of the ball. Players – on the back of recent AFL rule changes – have been provided with a much safer work place and the threat of physical harm has been significantly diminished. The net effect of these new safety guidelines is players are not protecting themselves and in many cases are not even aware of potential clashes or physical contests because of their confidence in the rules to protect them.

Whether it be tackling or bumps (when we are lucky enough to see one of these beautiful executed but now relatively extinct aspects of the game), players can add to the trauma by not bracing or being aware of the potential danger because rules have been put in place to protect them from head high physical clashes. This gives an unnecessary and overbearing sense of confidence in most hotly contested situations but when a clash inevitably happens players are more susceptible to injury because of their lack of awareness and lack of protection on the back of these rules. 

Whilst Kennedy has his eye on Johnson initially and knows he is probably going to run straight through the action he is completely unprotected and utterly unaware of the potential danger. Like in boxing players should be instructed to protect themselves at all times and in fact taught to expect contact as players were taught for a hundred years.

This situation leads into my concerns around the intimidation, danger and fear within a game of footy which the AFL has seen fit to minimise and be the social conscience for society. I am of the view that it is a gladiators game. It should be dangerous. You must be able to overcome fear. Intimidation is a valuable asset in sport. Fans love to see it in action and more so love to see how opponents react. 

It must be highlighted that I am not in any way condoning elbows, punches, kicks or thuggery.

My point is simple; expect contact, brace yourself and protect your head at all times otherwise the whiplash affect of a well executed bump may result in some head trauma. I am a strong advocate for minimising danger at every level outside AFL (Junior, VFL, Country, Metropolitan etc).

The AFL may believe they are being responsible citizens to society but they are ripping the very heart out of the very best game in the world.

Uphold Competition Respect

When money wasn’t a factor, when brand didn’t matter, when people respected ALL sports and didn’t fear their existence, when all everyone was interested in was seeing who was the very best – football reigned supreme. 

Sure there were financial problems and of course some clubs struggled to keep pace but there was a constant that kept driving everyone involved, administrators, players and fans alike – it was the competition. 

Who is the best team on field & off field. It was raw, tribal, brutal, fanatical, respectful & humble all at once. 

It didn’t matter if it was the Saints winning 1 premiership by 1 point over 140 years or the Dogs not having won since their solitary flag in 1954. Hawthorn winning over 25% of flags since 1971 or the dominance of the Pies era winning 4 in a row or the barnstorming Demons of the late 50’s taking all before them. Port Adelaide claiming victory in 2004 – much to my chagrin – and West Coast dominating proceedings with a state team was even mildly palatable and begrudgingly accepted.  The Crows were awesome in the late 90’s and helped the National competition to take hold. This followed by the incredible 3peat of the Lions at the turn of the millennium. It was still a competition. 

There is no doubt the competition as we knew it was changing dramatically for the benefit of the national game and ensuring interstate teams had a very good chance to play finals. 

It was nevertheless a competition. A little manipulation. Some orchestrated match ups. A few inside runs. A bit of preferential treatment. Additional money here and there. Some help with extra draft choices. A mildly contrived “FIXture”. One or two decisions on the run. Ostensibly only mild influence exerted or imposed by the AFL. Not perfect but pretty close to pure and simple competition. 

Sure we had cellar dwellers. Yes we had perennial wooden spooners. Certainly there were multiple premiership winners and dominant clubs. Once again there was one constant – it was fierce, ferocious, savage COMPETITION. It didn’t matter where you were on the ladder your fans were unconditional and rabid. 

I understand the need to ensure the national  competition flourishes but I don’t buy into the obscene manipulation and involvement currently undertaken by the AFL. Sydney struggled early days and the AFL didn’t want that to happen again.  Have they gone too far the other way? Without a doubt in my opinion. 

It cannot be called a competition when your success is dependant on the influence and involvement of decisions beneficial only to your club. Ensuring teams win premierships is a disgraceful and offensive platform to run a competition. 

For the Giants to have 23 first round draft choices with at least another 3 to come this year is wildly beyond a “leg up”. Ditto the Suns. I understand individual executives have a penchant desire to accelerate success on their own watch for some head wobble but they have taken it too far this time. 

I acknowledge AFL leaders have a difficult job juggling support for new franchises and interfering with the spirit of competition. One would expect some consideration and leniency to new interstate teams, especially ones in difficult markets such as NSW & Qld. However logic and integrity also suggests that there are 2 decisions that should never happen. Firstly (in order,) is not to hand-deliver a premiership to a club and secondly, not to provide enough support for them to compete over a reasonable period of time. 

Premierships are sacrosanct and need to be kept for worthy recipients who have stood the test of time and been rewarded for exceptional efforts and performances – or you run the risk of diluting its value. 

My formula is pretty simple. Provide every club with a reasonable “unfiltered” chance of making finals. Do that often enough and you’ll win a flag here and there. Making finals is a wonderful achievement especially for a club in their 5th year. Don’t give clubs excellent chances to win premierships, give them a reasonable chance to make finals. That’s the significant difference. Teams should “win” premierships in a brutal competition not just have it as a natural next step in their existence. 

There is a high degree of “fait accompli” about recent decisions and even more so  as it relates to immediate future winners. 

Coaching Reality

Upon appointment as coach to St Kilda in 2001 I immediately set about defining the structure that I believe gives a team it’s best chance of success.
Let’s be clear on one thing, you are in the premiership business – that’s an undeniable fact.

As Club Coach/Manager I oversaw the entire football operation similar to a General Manager within any corporate business. All coaches were put on employment contracts and were seen as managers not assistant coaches. They were all given a portfolio on top of their usual duties. List Management (including recruiting & draft), Contracts (TPP), Tribunal, AFL administration, VFL Liaison etc. Each of these responsibilities were given to an “assistant coach” as part of their personal development and to ensure all decisions were in line with the agreed strategic direction of the football club. We insisted that EVERY duty or decision made that impacted football must be made by the people charged with the responsibility to deliver the success – the coaches.

Of course their normal duties also required their focus such as; player development, tactical and strategic decisioning, opposition analysis, general training drills, player performance feedback, offence & defence management, team meetings, stoppage structures, ball movement and game plan implementation, leadership group involvement etc

We knocked down all walls within the environment and had a completely “open” room policy where all managers worked from work stations giving players 100% accessibility and transparency. We had a few break out rooms for private one on one meetings, selection and planning etc as well as a “War Room” where we devised our plans, plotted against opponents, had our pre-game team meetings and conducted leadership meetings in. We had a player theatre where we conducted video analysis, game reviews and club sessions involving all players on the list.

I actually only took training about 6 times each season. Every session was devised on collective agreement of the managers and implemented by a “coach” who ran the session. We all had roles to perform during training.
The AFL became incensed that we did not have a designated football manager and that Matt “Bundy” Rendell who in their eyes was “only” an assistant coach was our AFL Football Manager. This came about because the AFL insisted that every club had a person who would liaise with them – generally the Football Manager. When they heard we didn’t have a footy manager they insisted we have one, so we appointed Bundy into that position to satisfy City Hall. They were furious. He also oversaw List Management working closely with John Beveridge on draft, recruiting etc. Tribunal was another role he performed. He is forever indebted for the learnings and experiences he gained under that structure where he developed into something more than just an assistant coach.

“Bundy” also was in charge of the opposition and strategic/tactical operations.

It is my view that there can be a significant disconnection between the current Football Manager role who performs some/most of these aforementioned duties and the agreed strategically defined charter undertaken by the coach/manager and his assistants. There is an undeniable tug of war that erupts within clubs, between the Football manager, CEO and Coach. It creates an unnecessary and unworkable environment which confuses staff and creates constraints in the agreed goals. 

Let’s remember, each has a different mandate and in many cases they conflict with each other. Broadly, CEO’s are in the revenue and brand business, Coaches are in the premiership business and Football Managers sit somewhere in the middle trying to juggle the expectations of both as well as provide the necessary information and support required to facilitate the role. It’s a mess in my opinion. Fortunately most footy managers of late only have to deal with recently retired players, or relatively inexperienced coaches so confrontation and challenging of decisions remain minimal – unfortunately results are sometimes commensurate with these structural inadequacies.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, I am speaking generally here. 
Clearly the experience, talent and skills of ALL of the coaches needs to be significantly raised if they are to assume the responsibilities outlined in the structure we adopted from 2001-2006. You would not be able to appoint a recently retired player without some sort of coaching/manager experience.

Coaching your own team in your own right at senior level would be mandatory. Business or corporate experience would also be a valuable commodity. This would in turn mean that AFL coaches may reach 40 before they would be considered experienced and competent to perform the duty successfully. The upside is the elimination of the stabs in the dark or the dart throwing exercises recently experienced.

Whenever I talk to assistant coaches I get similar messages from them. They cite boredom, have too much time on their hands and are not engaged enough in responsibilities outside players and their development. Training services do not allow coaches to have access to players for long enough periods of time and frankly the players get bored and disinterested if their time at the club is extended. 

Perhaps clubs could look at their existing structures and implement a more rigorous and entrepreneurial regime to future appointments. They may avoid some of the dilemmas we are currently seeing and would definitely provide a more sustainable, enriching experience for coaches within a currently stale environment. We are habitual creatures and the AFL is no different. Time to be brave and reposition, relaunch some traditional structures?

Coach Model Flawed 2

Elite sporting codes overseas appoint managers. They are leaders who may not have played at a high level. They are leaders far more qualified with core components of the tasks required to be a successful sporting club, than their own playing ability.

Their experiences and skills revolve around management, leadership, strategy, communication and entrepreneurialism.

AFL coaches (largely) revolve around playing ability, no previous coaching experience, no previous management experience, assisting a club coach for varying periods of time (sometimes), and rarely if ever been employed or involved in anything outside the AFL industry.

In fact if you were drafting requirements for the credentials for your next AFL coach your criteria would be the opposite to those aforementioned AFL traits. However strangely, club leaders are seduced into appointing rookie coaches.

Within the next decade I am certain the penny will drop and clubs will start to change the structure and model of coaching moving forward.

Instead of appointing highly experienced, well credentialed football managers to support and oversee a young and inexperienced coaching panel, clubs will flip the situation on its head.

We will eventually see highly credentialed, experienced leaders managing (coaching) the club with less experienced footy managers to provide support and infrastructure to a panel of assistant coaching specialists. These assistant coaches will be career specialists who are technicians. They are astute in areas of data, information, strategy, tactics, opposition analysis, ball movement, structures, situation plays, “what-ifs”, player development, video analysis and player performance feedback, skill development, training drills and skills etc etc.

By way of example it would be like elevating Neil Balme’s or Gubby Allan’s role as football manager and appointing a leader/manager/coach (call it what you like) and that person having a team of highly credentialed, qualified technicians or assistants reporting to him and providing valuable data and information. The current club coach type (eg; Damian Hardwick, Nathan Buckley, Leon Cameron, Scott boys etc etc) would move into the specialist technician role. This would happen based on their individual skill sets, experience, areas of expertise and role enjoyment.

Many will see this as radical change, unnecessary and dangerous. My view is until we start to select people to run the football club with commensurate levels of acumen, skill and experience we will continue to get the same result.

How a board can ponder the appointment of a former elite player who has never experienced anything outside the AFL bubble is unconscionable. Just think about it; never coached his own side, never managed people, hired or fired, been a change agent, developed a culture and implemented it, executed on a devised business plan (remembering you are in the premiership business), led an organization or showed relative experience in running a 100+ staff environment? Frankly the mind boggles – it’s beyond me.

It talks more to the incompetence of the people appointing coaches than the successful candidates.

 

Technician or Manager? Coach Model Flawed.

The following views will not be popular.

They fly in the face of nearly 100% of previous decisions when appointing a coach.

Nevertheless my personal view is the formula is broken. Boards and executives are either in denial or plain dumb when it comes to appointing coaches to lead their clubs. Given the sycophantic involvement of part-time boards and the never-ending revolving door of industry executives the chances of radical change is remote. In fact the current leaders of the industry will not even concede the formula is broken because they firstly do not know an alternative exists and secondly do not have anything to measure their decisions on.

If coaches endure their tenure long enough and win a premiership or two along the way (after all someone has to win them), clubs immediately think the current model is right. It’s terribly narrow-minded thinking.

Currently coaches are appointed because they were either former great players from successful clubs or have been highly rated assistant coaches. Neither of those two experiences have the slightest correlation with the reqiuirements to be a successful leader, manager, coach. In fact it is my view that the former is completely irrelevant and the latter – whilst seducing – is equally fraught with danger.

The key components to be an astute and competent assistant coach are attention to detail, data analysis, technical competence, tactical nous, opposition evaluation and player development to name a few. In summary a football “technician”. On the other hand the traits of a successful coach are people management, devising and managing  strategy, leading cultural change, entrepreneurial thinking, delivering breakthrough performance, dealing with confrontation, decision-making and leadership. In summary a “manager”.

The technician stays involved in his craft; data, tactics, information and it’s usually at the expense of what he is not competent or experienced in – people, leadership, culture, management.

So many of the rookie and inexperienced coaches within the AFL think the game revolves around strategy and tactics, game plans and structures. They pay scant regard to people, culture, leadership, attitude and effort standards. It’s understandable because it’s all they know – it’s effectively their world.

They have never hired anyone, fired anyone, devised and driven a business plan, directed a groundbreaking organisational or industry strategy or led significant cultural change. Nor should they have. They went to school until 18yo, got drafted, played to 32yo, appointed as an assistant coach, learn on the job until relative competency for 4-8 years and then become a senior AFL coach in the premiership business, leading 50 players, 75 staff, $20M budget and expected to deliver success. 

Illogical, irrational, ridiculous. 

The problem is this; if everyone is from that background SOMEONE has to succeed. Every year a team is premiers and they have a coach who has come through the aforementioned system.

I’m going to say something and you are not going to like it. There are MANY executives out there who would make a much better fist at coaching your club than the incumbents. I find it inexcusable that former players without any prior coaching experience are appointed and let me make this clear, being an assistant is not coaching. Outside management and leadership experience should be mandatory.

Until we adopt more of the overseas coaching/manager models we will continue to flounder and appoint former players that are utterly out of their depth and competency. 

Unfortunately I cannot see a club with the gonads to break the mould and revolutionise coaching as we currently know it.

As such, expect more of the frightful experiences some coaches are going through such a Justin Leppitsch.

Does AFL Have Concussion?

Concussion has become a major talking point in sporting his circles.

The movie “Concussion” is a raw and glaring example of the ramifications from regular and ongoing brain-rattling collisions.

The difficulty – as expressed in the movie – is the dilemma between the moral stance and “guardian” responsibility to protect sporting participants AND the basic fundamentals of collision sports that are founded on pain, hurt, maim and minimise. It’s this gladiator type phenomenon that excites fans. We are seeing it in mixed martial arts fighting which has taken off at extraordinary levels. Fans love to see physical contact, tests of strength, violent collisions.

Unfortunately the fans are not there to see the aftermath, the pain, the suffering, the debilitation of faculties. Similar to the gladiator model, the warriors and the beasts are dragged out of the colosseum, thrown in the bin (colloquially) and replaced by the next throng.

Under no circumstances do I condone deliberate or unneccesary brain-rattling collisions. For the record I’m against MMA fighting and the implications within society. I’m also very much for outlawing head high hits along with severe punishment for punches, elbows etc to the head. They have no place in any sport in my opinion. However I want sport to be dangerous and on the edge where a participant has to make a split-second decision about risk and reward. Do I win that ball and possibly get hurt or do I pause for a nano-second and avoid the collision? This is what has made our game the best game on the planet. The contact (sadly over-umpired), the collisions (sadly avoided), the bumps (sadly gone), the bone crunching tackles (sadly minimised).

When one looks to the causes rather than the effects of an incident one ponders why players are getting knocked out or having their brains rattled from tackles. 

I have a theory…………….

The action in a slinging tackle has been around for 100 years. The desire to hurt an opponent in a tackle has been and will continue to be the driving motivation to perform a great tackle. Of course no player wants to see another hurt but it’s that primitive mentality that allows you to attack the contest and achieve the best result.

Now here’s the rub. The player with the footy understands the intentions of the tackler and either as soon as he makes contact or a nano-second before he releases the footy to protect himself and put the ball to:

  1. A teammate
  2. A contested situation
  3. An opponent

By doing this he had his arms free to protect himself.

At least that was up until coaches decided to change tack.

Coaches now insist the player with the ball accepts the tackle and does his best to retain the footy (which in 9/10 cases he does) and create a stoppage or ball up. From here the game stops and can be restructured and reorganized to start again rather than point 2 or point 3 occurring.

If a player releases the ball and point 2 or 3 occur he will receive a tongue-lashing in front of his peers at the game review meeting the following day.

The mentality is firmly entrenched in the minds of the robots; when tackled, brace, hold on to ball, cause a ball up, start again.

Unfortunately tacklers go that little bit further to entice a release and sling the player. The reasons are twofold; accentuate to the umpire that he has not released the footy so it’s holding the ball or make the footy pop out in tackle.

The flow on effect from this is the player with the footy does not have his arms free to cushion his fall. His hands, his forearm, his elbow or his shoulder is all rendered useless because he has allowed himself to be pinned up like a mummy to entice the umpire to call ball up.

So what does the AFL do? Instead of dealing with the causes and insisting on players to release the footy, they deal with the effects and reduce the intensity and ferocity of tackles. From a fan or spectator point of view this is detracting from the spectacle.

In days gone by there have been countless slinging actions by tacklers however the ball would have been released earlier in the tackle and the umpire would pay a free kick for holding the man or alternatively the player tackled would use his arms to cushion his fall and avoid his head slamming in to the ground.

Instructions to umpires have changed as well, so their interpretation – whilst wide and varied – contributes to the situation.

A player needs only a split second to release the footy however the AFL or umpires seem to be under some sort of time warp or spell where they allow the player with the ball an inordinate amount of time to release the ball. THERE IS NOWHERE IN THE RULES THAT STIPULATES A PLAYER MUST BE GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO FIND A TEAMMATE BEFORE HE RELEASES THE BALL. 

I watched Courtenay Demsey lay a perfect tackle on Andrew Gaff recently. He was penalised for the action. Gaff clearly looks for a teammate but is surrounded by Essendon players. He does what he has been instructed to do – hold on to the footy and create a ball up. 

There is the problem.

Here is the solution:

  1. Consistency in split second time for player to release the footy irrespective if he is on his own during last 2 minutes of a tight game, in D50 goal square surrounded by opponents – circumstances and stage of game is irrelevant. If player doesn’t release footy pay a free kick to tackler.
  2. If ball is knocked out in tackle it’s called play on like the previous 100 years and not morphed into a free kick to the tackler as is the case today.

Apart from applying the rules as they were meant to be and have been interpreted for 100 years (albeit not in the last decade) this will counteract coaches manipulating the game with insurmountable stoppages that detract from the game as a spectacle.

The AFL is trying to appease community concerns around head injuries which is honorable however they have not dealt with the causes and are simply trying to appease society which is dramatically affecting the appeal of the game.

Ben Cousins Needs AFL

Does the AFL have any responsibility to the welfare of Ben Cousins?

Legally no.

Contractually no.

Morally?

Ethically?

When an organization positions itself as the lighthouse of social and community issues one gets a tad confused with the AFL’s actions relating to Ben Cousins.

From terminal illnesses to bullying, from racism to violence against women and finally the world leader in the fight against drugs in sport, the AFL certainly talk the talk but do they walk the walk?

Their ulterior motive seems to be much more about brand protection than association and taking responsibility. Somewhat of an all care and no responsibility culture. That is; if we can protect or promote our brand we will be front and centre at the press conference however if there is potential for damage – count us out.

My view is the AFL are duty bound morally and ethically to be up to their ears in situations such as the one confronting Ben Cousins. Either that or stop trying to be the savior for society’s problems. You are either in and fully invested or you are a football competition that does not align itself to government and society problems.

This is where the dilemma sits. Personally I struggle to have sympathy for people making poor choices. Understanding consequences for actions is something that we were taught whilst growing up.

I understand that a few people may get some sort of adrenalin rush and have a wow of a time when using a social drug. However when the dust settles and the clear light of day arrives surely the guilt and embarrassment is enough to help them make different choices next time. Most people “try” something once however their values and upbringing helps them to make smart decisions relating to ongoing use. I also understand – to some degree – the mental issues and “wiring” problems that some people have that makes these choices much more difficult.

Nobody will convince me that West Coast Eagles players, officials or related media did not know about the shenanigans during the volatile period. Most people outside the WCE associated with the game knew something was happening. It was unavoidable. Rampant use comes to mind. It is inconceivable for the officials at the Eagles to plead ignorance.

It’s time the AFL exerted it’s massive influence, rolled up their sleeves and fully committed to a guy that has exhausted every other avenue of help available to him.

Loss of life, loss of family and friends, addiction, mental conditions, lies and deception. It’s a tragic situation and there is grave concerns around the next headline on Ben Cousins.

Seems the AFL are still pondering if it’s really their problem or someone else’s? Or is it really about the brand damage?